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Incarcerated at 5 years old, Janet Daijogo says it's "karma" she teaches kindergarten

Janet Daijogo in her kindergarten classroom

This is a story about one of my very first teachers, Janet Daijogo. She’s the one who taught me how to tie my shoes and how to read my first book. I’m just one of hundreds of kids who’ve passed through her kindergarten classroom in the more than fifty years she’s taught.  

There’s a really special way in which way Mrs. Daijogo talks to kids. She employs a candor you don’t usually hear from adults. It’s as if she’s letting her students know she really sees them. She asks for their respect, and in turn gives them hers.

Spend a morning in her classroom, and you can see her years of experience shine. What you might not be able tell is that Mrs. Daijogo never attended kindergarten. And that’s because when Mrs. Daijogo was five — the same age as her students — she and her whole family were forced from their home and incarcerated. Mrs. Daijogo grew up in Pescadero. Her parents were sugar pea farmers.

“My mother wanted to be a teacher but she couldn't be a teacher because there was racial prejudice at work,” says Mrs. Daijogo. “So she went back to the farm and married my father, who was also a farmer.”

Mrs. Daijogo has vivid memories of the military police banging on her family’s door and searching the house.

“I was so frightened that I sat on the bed and I remember digging my fingernails into my legs so that I wouldn't scream,” Mrs. Daijogo remembers. “And for some reason I knew I had to be quiet . . . and what I know now as an adult is that is really trauma for a young child.”

Eventually Mrs. Daijogo and her family were sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center. It was an old horse racetrack in San Bruno that held over 7,000 Japanese Americans. It’s now a shopping mall. From there, the family was sent to the Topaz incarceration camp in Utah, where Mrs. Daijogo would live for three years.

“All I remember was the tarpaper barracks and the sandstorms and walking and getting lost in the sandstorms, and it was blowing so hard you couldn't see the buildings,” She says. “And just standing there and crying on my way home from school, and me wetting my pants because I didn't know what to do.”

This feeling of being afraid was pervasive.

“I was scared most of the time,” she remembers, “I think that the scary part was . . .knowing there was something all of a sudden in your five-year-old world that was very wrong.”

It’s a hard feeling to shake off.

“Still, if there is a knock on my door . . . there is an instant of fear I feel every single time I open the door,” she tells me.   

No adult ever explained to her what was happening, or the real reason why they were there. Incidentally, Mrs. Daijogo grew up thinking that everyone went to camp. That was until she was a sophomore at UC Berkeley, when she came across an article on Japanese American incarceration camps

“I came home from college and I said ‘mom, you didn't tell us why we were in camp,’ that that was a outrage; and she said ‘it doesn't do any good to leave a legacy of hatred,’” Mrs. Daijogo recounts.

“I wish they had told me why I was scared!” she laughs. “Because I carried that sense of fear . . . I think I would have understood it and worked with it instead of waiting till I was a teacher already.”  

As an adult, she developed tools to deal with her feelings, like practicing aikido –– she has a Black belt. She brings what she’s learned into the classroom, teaching mindfulness in a period called Energy Time. She also talks openly about her time in the camp with older students at her school, during units where they’re learning about California history. I asked herwhat she tells them.

“That I was in prison,” she says with a faint chuckle. “I say —  if I cry and get emotional, you start to breathe, and you just be there with me.

Mrs. Daijogo should have been in kindergarten when she was five years old. It’s no coincidence that’s the grade she teaches.

“I think it was my karma that I ended up in kindergarten,” she tells me. “I am very aware of how sensitive those children are because I was that young girl. I was that little girl.”

Lately she’s felt more urgency in telling her story. The recent rise in anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric raises red flags for her.

“I'll be 80 next month and I think ‘I’ve already been to prison once,’” she says. “I don't want it to happen to anyone in my lifetime again. But it’s happening anyway.”

“I can't but help but think of refugees and all the young children that are throughout the world that are frightened,” she says, her voice breaking.

Mrs. Daijogo was supposed to retire this year. After all, she’s been teaching for more than half a century. But after the election, she changed her mind.

“This little voice said: ‘You keep teaching kindergarten another year, because that's where you can practice,’” she tells me. “I’ll have 20 five years olds that I'll teach them to be kind.”

She pauses, and then says: “Because I understand the darkness. And I feel it myself.”  

Mrs. Daijogo works hard to create a classroom that’s both honest and protective, where everyone feels welcome.

“Whatever I can do to convey or create a safe space for them, I try to do,” she explains. “And it's not the way another teacher might do it. But that's sort of foundational to what I am trying to present, and what kind of space I'm trying to create that doesn't have to do a lot to do with curriculum.”

What I know now about being in her class was that she was showing us all along how to be compassionate, how to keep each other and ourselves safe. It’s a lesson she hopes we all pass on.

This story originally aired in February of 2017

Hannah Kingsley-Ma is a reporter and producer living in San Francisco.